When the opportunity to read aloud arises, acclaimed poet Nikki Grimes shines.
“Oh, I love to read, whether it’s to a single person or an audience,” says Grimes, who spoke with Kirkus by phone from her home in Corona, California. “I’ve found that we really don’t grow out of the love of being read to—I have friends who occasionally call to ask me to read them something.”
In the course of the interview, she offers to read aloud one poem from her latest collection, One Last Word: Wisdom from the Harlem Renaissance. She performs “Crucible of Champions” with warmth, calm, and command.
“When I speak, in general, there’s always a little bit of nervousness, but I think that’s a good thing, because it makes you push to be your best,” she says.
Born and raised in Harlem and the surrounding boroughs, Grimes is the New York Times bestselling author of Coretta Scott King Award winner Bronx Masquerade and Coretta Scott King Author Honor books Jazmin’s Notebook, Talkin’ About Bessie, Dark Sons, The Road to Paris,and Words with Wings. In 2006, she received the NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children.
Grimes first read her poetry aloud in public at age 13, at Countee Cullen Library in New York City. (“My little legs were shaking, I was so scared,” she says.) She recounts the experience in the preface to her new anthology:
“As I ascended the stage that day, I felt as if I were stepping into the stream of the [Harlem] Renaissance poets who had come before me,” Grimes writes. “I feel their weight, and their influence, still. The elegance and power of their poetry gave me wings.”
That the poetry of the Harlem Renaissance might give wings to the next generation of middle-grade readers that they, too, might rise to realize their hopes and dreams—is just one thrust of One Last Word. This innovative collection features classic poems from the Harlem Renaissance—each the inspiration for an original poem by Grimes.
Throughout, Grimes applies a poetic form known as the “Golden Shovel.” (As Kirkus succinctly explains in a starred review, “The Golden Shovel poem takes a short poem in its entirety or a line from that poem, known as a ‘striking line,’ in order to serve as the foundation for a new poem in which each line ends with one word from the original.”) She first learned its parameters—and fell in love with it—when asked to contribute to an anthology honoring Harlem Renaissance poet Gwendolyn Brooks.
“Once I had done the one Golden Shovel, I immediately started brainstorming ideas of how I could apply that form to projects of my own,” she says. “Around that time, I was also reading selected works by Georgia Douglas Johnson, Clara Ann Thompson, and some others and was struck, for the first time, that women of the Harlem Renaissance are rarely, if ever, included in any of the works that we come across about the Renaissance—especially the poets. So those two ideas came together.”
One Last Word features poems by Johnson and Thompson as well as Jean Toomer, Countee Cullen, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Bennett, and Waring Cuney. All lend striking lines to Grimes’ poems centering on the struggles and triumphs of today’s youth.
For example, Grimes chooses the poem “Life and Death” by Clara Ann Thompson. Its first stanza reads:
That begets Grimes’ “Crucible of Champions,” a poem about six adolescents facing various challenges in their everyday lives. It opens with:
The young people in this poem contend with racism, learning disabilities, bullying, and the temptation of performance-enhancing drugs. Other works, from the Renaissance poets and Grimes alike, thoughtfully address interracial love, mental illness, poverty, and discrimination.
“A lot of people coming from the adult side tend to think of children’s literature as light verse, nature poems, or whatever,” she says. “No—children are complex human beings, they’re just little, you know? They have a depth of experience to speak to. You can talk to them about pretty much any subject, as long as the language is accessible.
“I never want to write down to a child. I always want to...speak to them directly, recognizing and respecting their complexity.”
An original artwork by an African-American illustrator accompanies each pair of poems. Publisher Bloomsbury asked Grimes for a wish list—they all said yes. They are Cozbi Cabrera, R. Gregory Christie, Pat Cummings, Jan Spivey Gilchrist, Ebony Glenn, E.B. Lewis, Frank Morrison, cover artist Christopher Myers, Brian Pinkney, Sean Qualls, James Ransome, Javaka Steptoe, Shadra Strickland, and Elizabeth Zunon. One Last Word also marks Grimes’ debut as a children’s illustrator.
“We’re always looking for ourselves in the images we see, and if we don’t see ourselves reflected, we feel invisible,” says Grimes, who wanted African-American protagonists and representations of the city life she knew as a young reader. “No one should feel invisible between the pages of a book or in the images that fill their lives. We need that confirmation, that reassurance, that validation.”
A hallmark of the Harlem Renaissance was that many African-American artists were published and collected for the first time. In an appendix, Grimes includes brief biographies of the poets as well as biographies of the contributing illustrators. Side by side, page after page, they are a testament to achieving one’s ambitions through vision, hard work, and perseverance—a main theme of One Last Word.
As Grimes writes in “Lessons,”
“I am all about finding the source of hope, building on that hope, and reminding readers that there’s reason to hope,” Grimes says. “If they dig deep into themselves, they will find that strength [to know], no matter what you’re facing, you can come out of it. Every day we wake up is a new opportunity to build something better, to do something different, to bring a little light.”
Megan Labrise writes “Field Notes” and features for Kirkus Reviews.